I have been to Kenya and I have trained at altitude in Iten, the distance running capital of the world. I have seen at first-hand how so many Kenyans dedicate themselves to running. They’re also pretty good at it! And yes, I have been running with the Kenyans.
In this, the second part of my Kenyan blog, I want to write about the training that we experienced during our two-week camp in Iten, when I went running with the Kenyans. In the first part, I shared something of the experience of being in Kenya and of seeing the Kenyan running lifestyle.
Our two-week training camp was expertly put together and delivered by The Kenya Experience, and really was suited to runners of all abilities and experience. Elite coach Hugo van den Broek was on hand to support and encourage us through the training and, ably assisted by the team of coaches and local guide runners (all of whom were incredibly good athletes in their own right), ensured we got the most out of our Kenyan experience. And special thanks goes to Willy Songok, a former professional runner and very much the heart-and-soul of the entire trip. He looked after us so well and impressed on us the importance of not worrying about everyday “unusual situations”.
During a series of seminars, we were able to learn more about the Kenyan approach to running and training, as well as share our own experiences of racing and training. We also met some top international runners including Stanley Kebenei (one of Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-2 hour marathon pacers) and Sylvia Kibet, who graciously entertained us in her own home. On our last evening we met Lonah Chemtai in a local restaurant and she was happy to spend some time talking to us about her upcoming marathon in Tokyo. Having run the race in 2016 I’m guessing she found my tips helpful, as she went on to win the race and break the course record a week later!
So, what does a typical week running with the Kenyans look like? Obviously, different athletes and groups will have their own programmes. However, the majority focus on three quality sessions a week (track, fartlek and long run), two runs most days (an easy 40-50 minutes most afternoons) and a rest day on Sunday (a day for family, church and, as I found out, washing!).
- Monday – progression run of 60+ minutes with last 30 mins ‘all out’
- Tuesday – track session: up to 10k in reps of between 400m-1k
- Wednesday – easy run of between 60-70 minutes
- Thursday – the Iten fartlek: 30-40 minutes, with 1, 2 or 3 minute fast reps
- Friday – easy run of between 60-70 minutes
- Saturday – long run or 2+ hours including some tempo minutes/miles
- Sunday – rest day
Most Kenyan runners aren’t fortunate enough to own a GPS watch and so don’t have our obsession for running by pace. Instead, they run much more by feel and by effort. This results in top paces that are significantly faster than the average amateur runner, but also easy/recovery paces that are often much slower. A learning point I took away was to introduce a far greater range of pace/effort in my own training and to try and be less of a slave to the ‘target pace’ in my training plans.
The physical environment in Iten also had a big impact on our training, and is one of the reasons why so many runners travel there to go running with the Kenyans. First, it can be very warm (Iten is less than 100 miles from the equator) and so most main runs are done at first light. This suited me as I’m very much a ‘straight out of bed’ runner and it definitely helped to work up an appetite for breakfast! It also meant we had the rest of the day free for rest, recovery and any other workouts/sessions that we wanted to do. Whilst the Europeans would meet up at the camp gates at 6.30am in shorts and vests, it was noticeable just how much clothing the Kenyan runners were wearing. I even saw jackets being worn for runs in the midday sun!
Second, is the altitude. Iten sits above Kenya’s Rift Valley at approx. 2,400m (7,900 feet), and for someone who lives and runs at sea-level, running at this altitude represented quite a challenge. High altitude impacts your heart-rate whilst training: supressing your maximum heart-rate, whilst increasing it at lower effort levels. The impact is different for everyone, but I found that on average my pace was around 1 to 1½ minutes per mile slower than it would be for the same effort at home. So, trying to train by pace was not an option for me and I had to adapt to running by effort. There is no doubt that by the second week I was getting used to the altitude effect and was feeling less uncomfortable.
Third, it’s hilly. Very hilly. It’s not so much about big hills (although there are some), but more that there are hills in every direction you go. The training camp is located at pretty much the highest point in Iten, which means every run ended with a nice climb to finish! To give an example, on an average week at home I might run 40 miles with 1,200ft of elevation. In Iten, I ran up 3,000ft each week with similar mileage. Our long run through Sangore forest had over 1,000ft of climb in 11 miles, whilst a five mile ‘easy’ run had 500ft of climb. And never trust your running guide when he says “no more hills” (usually followed by “the next one’s just a slope”!).
And finally, the roads. Or rather, dirt tracks. When you fly over Kenya you can see mile after mile of dirt tracks with their distinctive red dust winding their way through the Kenyan countryside. What you can’t see until you’re on the ground is just how rocky they are! Not easy to run on at all, and it does mean that you are constantly concentrating on picking up your feet. Didn’t stop me from taking a couple of tumbles and coming home with scars to remember Kenya by (and I wasn’t the only one). Only one day did we run on a nice tarmac road, and then only because overnight rain had turned most of the tracks to thick mud.
All those things combined to make it a very challenging, but also rewarding environment to run in. The following maps out my own two-weeks of running with the Kenyans. Most days I only did the main run, although plenty of the group did go out for a second run with our local running guides. I did enjoy having the time, space and motivation to spend on stretching, strengthening and all those other exercises we know are good for runners, but that we never seem to find the time for at home. You will also see that we had running drills and core workout classes as well as time to unwind in the sauna and probably the best sport massage I’ve ever had.
|Week 1||Main run||Second run/workout||Other exercise|
|Sunday||Rest||40 min walk||Stretch & core – 40 mins |
Pilates – 45 mins
|Monday||Easy run – 4.4 miles (8:52 pace)||90 min walk||Stretch & core – 60 mins|
|Tuesday||Easy run (track) – 2 miles (8:06 pace)||Run to and from track – 1.5 miles|
Core workout – 40 mins
|Stretch & core – 20 mins|
Pilates – 45 mins
|Wednesday||Progression run – 6 miles (8:30 average)||3 hour walk|
Running drills incl. 3 miles to the track (8:40 pace)
|Stretch – 15 mins|
|Thursday||Tempo run (5x6mins effort – 7:30 pace)|
3 mile warm up/cool down
|Stretch & core – 60 mins|
|Friday||Easy run – 7 miles (8:50)|
Stretch & core – 30 mins
Pilates – 45 mins
|Saturday||Long forest run – 11.6 miles (9:20)||Stretch & core – 50 mins|
|Week 2||Main run||Second run/workout||Other exercise|
|Sunday||Rest||30 min walk||Stretch & core – 50 mins|
Pilates – 45 mins
|Monday||Easy run – 6.5 miles (8:45)||Short hill sprints and warm up/cool down (3.3 miles)||Stretch & core – 20 mins|
|Tuesday||Track workout 7x1k (6:45)||Core workout – 40 mins||Stretch & core – 30 mins|
|Wednesday||Easy run – 5 miles (9:00)||1+ hour walk||Stretch & core – 40 mins|
|Thursday||Iten fartlek – (1min fast:1 min jog)|
4 miles (8:20)
|Running drills incl. 3 miles to the track (8:40 pace)||Stretch & core – 50 mins|
Pilates – 45 mins
|Friday||Easy run – 6 miles (9:00)||Easy run – 5 miles (8:30)|
45 min walk
|Stretch & core – 45 mins|
It would be hard to pinpoint a single thing that had the most effect on me and my running. The tempo run in week one was really hard work, in part because I didn’t feel properly acclimatised to the altitude. But by the time we hit the harder sessions in week two I was feeling much more settled and able to push myself more. I’ve always enjoyed my track sessions, and it was no different running on the dirt track at Tambach surrounded by impressively good athletes. And hills are always good for you (right?).
But the highlight was taking part in (and finishing) the Iten fartlek – probably the most iconic training run in the world. It’s a four-mile session (although many of the runners will do an extended version) over an undulating dirt track route, with a big climb at the start.
It seems like the whole Iten running community is out and gathering at the starting point, including new 10k world record holder Rhonex Kipruto. A decision is made by the front of the pack on today’s session – we’re doing one minute fast, one minute slow. And then, after a short prayer, we’re off. One minute fast, one minute slow. And fast is fast. And it’s a big first hill. In no time I’ve been dropped to the back. And I feel every bit the middle-aged, amateur mzungu (local slang for white person!) that I am. But I keep going (fantastically supported by Beatrice my guide). I keep to my minute fast and minute slow.
And finally, I see where the rest of the group are waiting at the finish. I speed up (of course), avoid a cow in the final few strides and take in the cheers. I’ve finished the Iten fartlek. And I’m not last! I’m hit with the type of running high I normally only experience after races. But in many ways, this was a race. My Kenya race. The ultimate running with the Kenyans experience. It’s one of those runs that I will never forget and which will bring a huge smile to my face whenever I think about it. And I can tell that the rest of our group feels just the same. So pumped up are we, that we decide the best way to celebrate is to run back to the training camp!Running the Iten Fartlek, 20 February 2020
That seems a fitting way to end my running with the Kenyans experience. There is so much more I could write about, and maybe one day I’ll return to it, as one day I hope to return to Iten. I have learnt so much, met some amazing people and been inspired to keep working hard and to strive to be the best that I can be. I have my motivation back!
Next time I may reflect on what differences I’ve felt in my running since my return from Kenya – although this may be quite difficult as the coronavirus lockdown brings an end to our racing plans for the first part of 2020. But running is one of the things we are still allowed to do, so we should make the most of it.
Take care and stay safe. And when all this blows over, I’ll see you at the start.